This year, I traveled around Europe for nearly 6 months in an attempt to solve my quarter-life crisis. As a money-saving measure, I nearly eliminated accommodation costs by couchsurfing, staying with friends, and doing several “work exchanges,” where I volunteered my time in exchange for food and a bed. The types of work exchanges available vary greatly, from farms to youth hostels, to summer camps to restaurants. Online networks such as WWOOF, HelpX, and Workaway help connect people to hosts in need of help.
Work exchanges are appealing to savvy travelers, not only because they can help you save money, but also because they provide learning opportunities, cultural immersion experiences, and much more. During my travels, I spent 2 weeks volunteering as a“native English speaker” at a language immersion program in Poland and nearly a month helping out a family in Ireland with a number of assorted jobs. Here are several important things I gained from these exchanges.
Just about any work exchange, no matter what you’re doing, should provide opportunities to meet new people. Of course, you can’t expect to deeply connect with everyone you meet, but if you are open minded and accepting, you can certainly make a handful of friends, whether they’re fellow volunteers or the people you’re working for. My exchanges left me with a few dozen new Facebook friends and a handful of people whom I can now call close friends—and hope to stay in touch with for years to come.
I learned more about the cultures and histories in Ireland and Poland than I ever would have expected. My hosts were always up for a lengthy conversation about the current or historical events in their home countries. However, it wasn’t just the hosts who gave me new cultural knowledge and awareness—my co-volunteers in both locations hailed from all over the world.
I worked alongside people from Germany, Spain, Russia, Australia, Italy, England, Malta, France, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Pakistan, and numerous others from all over the United States. Discussing world events and history with the plethora of people from different backgrounds was eye-opening and gave me a welcome challenge of my own standing viewpoints.
Working alongside so many people from so many places will pose language barriers and challenges, but of course, everyone works to overcome these.
I found that many of the volunteers I met in Ireland were there specifically to spend time learning English. These people were often more than willing to exchange language lessons in their native tongue with the English speakers who spent time helping them practice.
In Poland, the whole point was to speak English all the time to give the learners a mock-native-English environment. However, sometimes we cheated a little bit and got the students to teach us Polish phrases to make them feel more confident (i.e., to show them that their abilities to speak English were far greater than our Polish skills!).
I began my trip looking to achieve my dream of becoming a travel writer. However, career paths can unexpectedly change, and the most surprising thing my work exchange provided was inspiration. These opportunities led me to go in a somewhat new direction with my career—teaching English, if you didn’t already guess.
Not only did this adventure spark a new passion, but it also gave me experience to put on my résumé. The program in Poland provided volunteers with a voucher to take a free online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification class. I got to practice my teaching skills a little bit with my fellow volunteers in Ireland. I also met clients for online English lessons while I was working in Poland, which is now a regular freelance gig of mine.
Did you find career inspiration in an unexpected place? Share your story in the comments!